Last week, on the hottest day ever recorded in Scotland, with the sole purpose of being perverse, I went into the sauna at my local gym. 85 Celsius. I fell into conversation with a Ukrainian refugee who asked me what the English word was for the machine in the gym on which you could run. I couldn’t think, and replied, rather lamely, “a running machine.” Then it came to me. “A treadmill.”
“I haven’t heard that word. Why treadmill?”
I had the image of a pony attached to a wheel at a pithead, endlessly walking in a circle to uplift a bucket of coal from the bowels of the earth. I said, “It’s a kind of metaphor for carrying out an uncongenial repetitive task. If you are obliged to persist, you’re on a treadmill.”
“Treadmill.” He lodged it away. He’d only been in Scotland for two weeks, but already he’d picked up a job as a translator. I told him I thought he’d be very good at it. Where did he learn English? School? He said he’d studied it at school and got nowhere, but then he just picked it up from U-tube. I asked him if he found the Scottish accent difficult. Not at all. I told him sometimes I couldn’t understand the guys in the gym when they spoke rough urban Stirling, and I’m from Glasgow, 25 miles away. The third occupant of the cubicle, a young lady, flashed me a grin.
The treadmill used to be a feature of life in prison. Hard labour is punitive. The labour is even more punitive if it is pointless, like painting coal white, cleaning a parade ground with a toothbrush, or moving heavy sacks from point A to point B, then from point B back to point A. Such tasks are designed to break the spirit. Eyeless in Gaza, at the mill with slaves… Such is the myth of Sisyphus. You push the heavy stone to the top of the hill, only for it to roll back down to the bottom. You go back down and start all over again. I remember at school, we all thought it preferable to receive two smart strokes of the tawse than to be forced to write out a hundred times, “I must not forget my pencil.” The prefects were not allowed to beat us, but they could hand out lines. Their favourite was, “Discipline is the fundamental basis of any well-organised society.” The galling thing about that is that it’s not even true. Discipline is the fundamental basis of any totalitarian regime. I wonder what would have happened if I had gone to the headmaster and said, “I refuse to condone a lie.” Like the guy in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible who refused to sign a confession, I would doubtless have paid a heavy price. “Love is the fundamental basis of any well-organised society. And by the way, the school toilets are a disgrace.” I might have received three swipes of the strap, accompanied by the mantra, “GOD – IS – LOVE!” So I would never have taken the risk. But I might have buried deep in my 100 lines, say around line 63, one single seditious message. You know where you can stick your well-organised society. Safe enough. You might write 100 lines, but nobody will ever read them.
If you find yourself on a treadmill, what do you do? Well, obviously, you get off. But what if you can’t? What if you are a galley slave, chained to your oar? All you can do is try to retain a sense of self. An attitude to your situation. Survive. And wait. And try, somehow, to communicate with your peers, who are in the same boat. At school, you would perform a small ceremonial act of rebellion, like sticking chewing gum to the underside of your desk, and you would hope like hell that your neighbour wasn’t a stooge, in the pocket of the authorities, and a clype.
Sitting in the sauna, I conjured this thought experiment. You are on a treadmill in the gym, pelting along at full tilt, and the conveyor belt abruptly halts. Do you crash forward over the front of the machine, or fall off the back? Either way, when Boris’s treadmill came to an abrupt halt, I think he would have done well to get off. He might have followed the example of his great hero, Winston, who, when the electorate rejected him in 1945, couldn’t get out fast enough, even if he was determined in due course to make a come-back. But they say that Boris is hanging around because he doesn’t believe either Rishi or Liz can cut the mustard. The Tories will self-destruct and then Boris will say, “Here am I. I can save you. All you need do is ask.” But Indispensability Syndrome is a terminal condition. If you think you are indispensable, the caustic aphorism runs, just look at your appointments book the week after you are dead.
Sweating away in the sauna, I can’t decide whether the suddenly halted treadmill hurls you forward or tosses you back. I’ll have to Google it. But not now. One of the advantages of the sauna is that it is a device-free zone. I have never seen anybody bring their smartphone into the sauna. Another advantage of sauna etiquette is that it allows conversation to be abruptly terminated. The other day a guy was passing inappropriate remarks about a personable young lady whom he could observe through the Perspex door, conducting a children’s swimming class. You know the sort of thing. “Do you think if I told her I was seven years old I could join the class? She can be my lifesaver any time…” It was all very creepy. I muttered, “Heat stroke”, left, and slid into the pool.